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?

Hi all,

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 term.

One could argue that the emphasis on the European and North American military experience is disproportionate;

"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:

1. Military historians tend to be from Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand and it's natural that they would focus on the experience of their own countries or regions.

This went unchallenged.

2. The military history of this region has a good claim to being the most important. The military institutions, technologies, tactics and thought developed there are preeminent. Not only did they greatly assist European peoples in achieving control of 80 percent of the world's surface by 1900, nearly every nation-state in the world has military forces closely modeled upon them.

Those who touched on this point agreed with it, and a couple implicitly or explicitly amplified on it.

3. The military history of this region is the most heavily documented and the most accessible in terms of language.

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 Dr. Jeffrey 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."

4. The military history of this region tends to be of greatest interest to present-day armed forces and general readers.

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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