Interrogating the Project of Military History

February 1, 2004 - As a reader just pointed out to me, it's been over a week since my last entry and I really need to get back to it.

I haven't yet discussed in detail the first meeting of our "History of War Readings Group," which took place on January 16.  The inaugural selection was Lilian Friedberg's "Dare to Compare:  Americanizing the Holocaust," American Indian Quarterly vol. 24, no. 3 (Summer 2000):353-380.  The author, pictured at left in the photo, is an interesting person:  a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is also artistic director of the Chicago Djembe Project--djembe is a West African drumming tradition; the project itself uses djembe drumming as a way of fostering respect across boundaries of culture and gender.  Friedberg herself is of German-Jewish-Ojibwe background, a point she raises in the first endnote of her article (one gathers she would like to have raised it in the text of the article).  In fact, here is the entire endnote:

"The reader of this paper is instructed to note that the linguistic and literary intent of the writer involves a deliberate transgression of traditional boundaries in scholarship.  The paper thus combines and at the same time challenges elements of various genres:  from personal narrative, to scholarly discourse, to critical analysis and creative writing in a parodic idiom that, at times, borders on the 'sacrilegious.'  It is written from the subject position of a German-Jewish-Native-American-(Anishinabe)-Female [Anishinabe and Ojibwe refer to the same group of indigenous people] and, as a 'cross-genred' literary experiment, seeks to reflect the cultural hybridity of its author."

The article is in three parts.  The first section, "The Dynamics of Denial:  Uncle Sam’s Willing Executioners," argues that although German Jews can and do appropriate analogies from the experience of Native Americans in order to underscore the horrors of the Holocaust, many German Jews resent and resist Native American attempts to speak of an "American holocaust" of indigenous people.  Many (white) Americans join Jews in systematically denying that an Indian holocaust took place.  Friedberg argues that such a holocaust did indeed take place, as measured by Raphael Lemkin's immensely influential 1943 definition of "genocide" (a term he also coined).  She points to such features as the undoubted demographic catastrophe that took place in the 150 years after European contact, substantial acts of intentional killing, and intentional or culpably negligent acts of population and cultural wastage on reservations. The next section, "Manifest Destiny:  My Brothers’ Killer," draws parallels between Lebensraumpolitik and manifest destiny, notes that the ideology of Nazi racial superiority drew upon a preexisting white racism prominent in the United States, and calls for "de-manifestation" as the appropriate American counterpart of "de-nazification."  The last section, "Holocaust in Contemporary Context:  Collective Suicide," notes a key difference between the Jewish and American holocausts:  as awful as were the events of 1938-1945, few would suggest that the Jewish population of the world faces extermination today.  Yet the American holocaust is ongoing, though now carried out primarily through extreme poverty and cultural despair.  As for the idea that this ultimately constitutes collective suicide, she quotes Ojibwe activist and scholar Winona LaDuke: "The survival of Native America is fundamentally about the collective survival of all human beings.  The question of who gets to determine the destiny of the land, and of the people who live on it—those with the money or those who pray on the land—is a question that is alive throughout society. . . . There is a direct relationship between the loss of cultural diversity and the loss of biodiversity."

Fifteen grad students and two faculty (including myself) showed up for the discussion.  Most of the grad students were from the military history program, but we had some students from American history and modern European history as well.  What ensued was a spirited discussion in the best sense.  I don't think anyone had a problem with Friedberg's injection of her own personality and political stance into the article.  Everyone understood that the alternative was in essence to adopt "the view from nowhere" or "the God trick."  Nor did anyone mind the transgression of the boundaries of traditional scholarship--with one massive exception.  While those present thought she had made her case that an American holocaust had indeed occurred, many thought she needlessly undercut her argument through an occasionally fast-and-loose use of evidence.  The most noteworthy example of this was the way in which the massive die-off that followed the Columbian contact--estimated at between 95 and 99 percent of the indigenous population--is made to seem the product of European intent.  Her evidence?  Lord Jeffrey Amherst's infamous 1763 suggestion that smallpox-infected blankets be distributed to the Ottawa and Lenape peoples.  Better to have said what is unexceptionable and just as on-target:  that Europeans such as the Puritans regarded this demographic catastrophe as a divine blessing, that they adopted policies that took full advantage of the vulnerability of the societies decimated by what had occurred, and that there was and continues to be a pronounced preference among people of European descent to give almost no historical significance to what occurred.  Most undergraduates come to college with at least a passing knowledge of the "Black Death" that wiped out a third of Europe's population in the mid-14th century.  Few have even a clue that the indigenous population of the New World suffered a catastrophe of at least the same magnitude.

I tried to raise a question in response to the widespread sense that a greater degree of scholarly hesitation and appropriate qualification would have enhanced the article.  Certainly this sense at least partly informed the verdict of the professor who graded the seminar paper on which the article was based.  As Friedberg told me in an email, the paper received a "B"--which as most faculty and grad students will know, represents not only an assessment on the paper but is also thinly-veiled code for "You don't belong here."  The first question in my mind, given that the article had a conscious political agenda, was the extent to which the structure of traditional scholarly discourse also contains a political agenda.  Wouldn't a greater degree of scholarly hesitation and appropriate qualification also have had the effect of blunting the political thrust of the article?  And if this result is acceptable to us--if in effect we desire that a historian conform to certain standards more than we desire to know their point of view--then are we not channeling the dialogue along certain implicit political paths?  Paths that seem less political but which in fact reflect a preference for politics that do not challenge the status quo?  Perhaps a major political assumption on the part of mainstream historians  is, in effect, the uncritical acceptance of those in power (now or at a given moment in the past) without asking why they are in power.

I was also interested in calling attention to the omnipresent trope of the inevitable extinction/marginalization of Indians.  It is literally hard for many historians, including myself, to imagine an alternative.  Thus what I regard as a strength of military history, its awareness of  "contingency," that important historical events could have worked out in very different ways, is almost wholly absent when it comes to the fate of indigenous societies.

Lastly, I was curious about the parallels between the American and Nazi Holocausts.  Richard P. Rubenstein's The Cunning of History:  The Holocaust and the American Future (1975) was one of the first works to make the point that the mass murder of European Jewry could usefully be seen not as an aberration but rather as the culmination of several tendencies long present in western society:

            Bureaucratic Domination, which greatly extended reach of government while at the same time fragmenting authority among an array of administrators and offices (16th-18th century) 

            Nationalism, which undermined alternative sources of moral authority. (19th century) 

            Forced Labor; the Nazis in effect created a modernized slavery in which slaves were now worked to death.  (This had already occurred in the British West Indies, parts of South America,  and parts of the American South).  (16th-19th centuries) 

            Mass Slaughter, which Rubenstein sees as a twentieth century development--World War One, especially Verdun, but whose operative point is the presence of a population that is seen as disposable.  The disposable population to which Rubenstein referred was that of young, single males in a Europe that had a labor force more than adequate to its needs.

Each of these tendencies was also present, to varying degrees, in the policy and actions of European settler societies toward the indigenous populations.  One could of course extend the discussion to encompass European settler societies the world over:  South Africa, Rhodesia, Algeria, Australia and New Zealand.

Surely, coercion and collective violence of this sort and on this scale falls squarely within the intellectual realm of military history.  The fact that military historians so seldom venture here suggests that it is overlooked or excluded because the subject matter is politically uncongenial.


Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide

David E. Stannard, American Holocaust:  Columbus and the Conquest of the New World

Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival:  A Population History Since 1492

Richard L. Rubenstein, The Cunning of History:  The Holocaust and the American Future

Related Sites

American Indian Holocaust. Site maintained by

"A little matter of genocide: A new look at American history."  Madison (Wisconsin) Times, November 2003.  News story concerning a recent talk given by Lilian Friedberg, adapted from her AIQ article.

"Dare to Compare:  Americanizing the Holocaust."  Link to mp3 audiofile of this talk.


Continue to next entry

Return to the main page