Interrogating the Project of Military History

February 15, 2004 - Whence did my gut reaction to Alloula's Colonial Harem arise?

"I attempt here, lagging far behind History, to return this immense postcard to its sender.

"What I read on these cards does not leave me indifferent.  It demonstrates to me, were that still necessary, the desolate poverty of a gaze that I myself, as an Algerian, must have been the object of at some moment in my personal history.  Among us, we believe in the nefarious effects of the evil eye (the evil gaze).  We conjure them with our hand spread out like a fan.  I close my hand back upon  pen to write my exorcism:  this text."

-- Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, p. 5

Alloula plainly saw me--a white male--as being in effect the colonial photographer.  That was obvious to everyone in the room.  The book was a polemic against people like me.  Although I happened to be reading his text, I was not his intended reader--except in the limited sense that he considered people like me the "sender" of "this immense postcard" he was returning. 

Alloula also saw what he was doing as political, an act of resistance--as Alloula put it himself, an "exorcism."  The people he was resisting, presumably, were also people like me.

So there I was, willing to read Alloula and hear what he had to say, only to discover that Alloula's response to me was a book-length diatribe against me.  And not even a diatribe addressed directly to me, but rather a diatribe about me with me present.  Reading Aloulla was like being insulted and treated as invisible, both at the same time.

As irrational as this gut reaction might be, I think it's worth taking seriously, because I don't think I'm alone in having it.  I think white males have this gut reaction constantly when they dip into works concerning colonialism, racism, sexism, etc.  I think it's tiresome to be constantly positioned in the role of Pharoah, and I think a white male has only three responses to being positioned in that fashion.

The first is to turn away, to reject, to roll one's eyes, to scoff.

The second is to deny that one is the target, by agreeing with and trying to identify with the Alloulas of the world.

The third is to take it--either because one thinks one deserves it, or because one accepts it as the price of hearing what the Alloulas of the world have to say.

The first reaction is probably the most common, particularly among military historians, who tend as a rule to be mostly white, mostly male, and mostly conservative (or, if you like, mainstream) in their politics.  Military historians tend to accept the world and its power relationships as they find it.  They usually study statesmen and generals. They usually explore the questions that statesmen and generals consider important.  Even when they study ordinary soldiers, it's from a perspective that statesmen and generals would find congenial.  By and large we are living white males studying what David Hackett Fischer has called that deadest of dead white males:  "the dead white male on horseback."

The second reaction is common among most other white male academics.  And after all, why not?  They didn't create the colonial project--or sexism, or racism--so they can as readily choose to identify with the oppressed as with the oppressor.  Which would be fine except that ordinarily they benefit from a power structure that favors white males as much as if they actively identified with and supported it.  Which makes the second reaction a cheap and easy game.

The third reaction is the hardest, because it obviously requires accepting a position that is unpleasant.  This is tough enough when one is merely reading a book or article. It's much more difficult when one actually engages face to face with the Alloulas of the world.

For example, some years ago I attended a colloquium on multiculturalism in the classroom run by an expert from the University of Wisconsin, an African American professor of education who was probably in his mid-fifties.  At one point the professor asked a question about how best to deploy multicultural perspectives and offered a menu of four possible responses.  Then he went over each response, one-by-one, and asked us to raise our hand when he mentioned  the one that sounded best to us.  I didn't listen carefully enough, didn't realize the menu was loaded, and raised my hand at one of the "wrong" responses.  In fact, it happened to be the worst of the wrong responses.

The professor pounced.  He asked me what I taught. History, I said, and when he asked what sort of history, I said military history.  He began to explain to me, pretty heavy-handedly, about the deficiencies of the response I'd chosen, and it was clear to me that it never entered his head that I might have chosen the response from anything less than a deliberate, committed, reactionary position.  His tone of voice became mocking.  He addressed me as "General," several times.  All in all, he did the best he could to make me feel like a fool.  And he really seemed to enjoy doing it.

Other than the way he treated me, I thought his presentation was useful, and when I ran into him afterward I made a point of thanking him.  I don't know that I was being gracious so much as I wanted to indicate that he had been wrong about me and I was really on his side.  He could barely bring himself to grunt at me in response.  I had the distinct impression he didn't want me on his side.  I had the impression that although he had spent his life struggling against the bigots of the world, he rarely had the chance to unload on one.  He had enjoyed unloading on me, and that was the value I had to him:  someone to unload upon.

I could easily multiply examples of this.  And since we tend to generalize most freely from our negative experiences, I could easily forget the numerous times I have spoken to proponents of multiculturalism who were as gracious as this professor of education proved malignant.

Still, a great deal of writing that deals with colonialism, sexism, racism, and the like--particularly some of the earliest and most seminal work in the field--is politically very charged.  It has an adversary, the white male, and usually it assumes that all white males are alike.  If it leaves me as a white male feeling insulted and invisible, both at the same time, I might consider that it is often written by people who have have felt insulted and invisible their whole lives.  I can suck it up for the time it takes to read a book or an article.

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