|Interrogating the Project of Military History|
February 20, 2004 - Since I commenced this blog, a few readers have wondered when I would get around to showing the utility of employing the new cultural and critical theories in military history. Given the prominence I've given to postcolonialism, this has sometimes taken the form of asking what a "postcolonial military history" might look like.
The most obvious context in which a postcolonial military history might be written, of course, is in the realm of the post-1945 wars of decolonization and national liberation. Some of these struggles have received extensive attention from military historians--most notably the Vietnam War--but many have not. For instance, although there seems to be an extensive literature on the struggle that extinguished Rhodesia and created Zimbabwe, I get the impression that most of it is done by scholars who focus on politics, society, and gender rather than military affairs. My ignorance is in this area is profound, however, and so it may be that I'm incorrect. Nevertheless, it's safe to say that military historians concentrate on the experience of Europe, North America, and Australasia. Thus, unless one of these post-1945 conflicts became a major milestone in the history of the United States or a prominent European power, it's likely to be overlooked.
Why this emphasis? A couple of days ago I posted a query on H-War. It generated six "public" and one "offline" replies. Here's the query, with a summary of the responses interwoven:
Subject: Is Military History Eurocentric?
Save for reasons of space, I would have written the subject line as "Why Does So Much Military History Focus on Europe and North America?" "Eurocentric" is a somewhat loaded term but at least has the virtue of being concise.
Nobody balked at
the term "Eurocentric," and one respondent said that he agreed with the
"Disproportionate" compared to what?, one respondent wanted to know.
that historically the average human
experience of war has been closer to that of Asia, Latin America, and
Africa. Still, works devoted to European and North American military
history handily outstrip works dealing with other regions of the world.
Prominent among the possible reasons, I imagine, would be the following:
This went unchallenged.
Those who touched on this point agreed
with it, and a couple implicitly or explicitly amplified on it.
Surprisingly to me (I expected that
point 2 would get the most assent), this was the point on which the
respondents seemed to agree most strongly.
Grey of the Australian Defence Force Academy, for instance, wrote,
"While I don't disagree with any of the other reasons Mark advances, I
think this is an important one. There is quite a lot of military history
'out there', but I can't read it even when I am aware of its existence
(like the volumes on the Great War produced by the Turkish General Staff).
Don't underestimate the archival dimension of the issue. The restrictive
practices of, for example, the governments in Moscow and Beijing mean that
we still do not know anywhere near as much about Soviet and Chinese
involvement in the Korean War as we do about the US, UK, or other UN
member states. If I can't access it, I can't very well write about it.
Perhaps even worse (since some material has begun to trickle out on the
aforementioned subject in the last decade) is where there are few real
archival practices to speak of. While working on a volume dealing with the
Konfrontasi campaign 1962-66, I went to Jakarta to talk to
surviving Indonesian senior officers from that period. An Indonesian army
contact who was a senior historian in their organization had warned me
that the Indonesian government really had no archival policy and no
central national archives of the kind with which I was familiar. I found
that senior officers (and other officials as well, no doubt) tended to
take home those papers that they deemed important (and on which they might
subsequently base their memoirs) since this ensured that they survived the
elements, neglect, or the destructive intentions of their rivals."
No respondent touched on this point.
Do these reasons sound about right? Are there others I haven't considered?
One respondent speculated on the existence of an attitude that "if the white guys weren't involved it didn't matter." Another wondered if there wasn't a tendency "for 'western cultures' to dismiss the possibility that 'non-western cultures" have anything of value to consider?" A third thought that the emphasis was driven by market considerations; i.e., most general readers want to read about the United States and western European military experiences.
Is this emphasis warranted?
At least one respondent said explicitly that it was, and no one argued that it wasn't.
If not, what are the obstacles to widening the field to incorporating more work concerning other regions, and how might these be overcome?
Since the respondents essentially considered the prevalence of Eurocentric military history a non-problem, it's not surprising that only one of them touched on this point, opining that better access to records might help.
Perhaps the most eloquent response, in its way, was the fact that my query produced only seven responses, compared with twenty-nine replies (with more coming in) for a query regarding the quality of the M4 Sherman tank.
Continue to next entry.
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