Interrogating the Project of Military History

February 24  - I said before that Friday's discussion was the best yet, but I haven't yet said much about what made it so.  One obvious factor was the presence of Prof. Norma Kriger, whose research and firsthand experience with Zimbabwe made her participation invaluable.  I began the session by asking her to give us a brief overview of the conflict, which Zimbabweans generally call the Chimurenga (or Second Chimurenga, to distinguish it from an 1896  revolt against white rule) but which is remembered by unreconstructed Rhodesians as the Bush War or the Terrorist War.  I won't recapitulate that here.  Instead I refer you to a set of pages I've begun to develop on the conflict.

Everything about the conflict remains highly politicized.  Norma herself has gotten a lot of flak because of her contention that much of the Zimbabwean peasantry's support for ZAPU and ZANU was coerced, not voluntary.  Similarly, she says that it is somewhat politically incorrect to note that the differences between ZAPU and ZANU were ethnic as well as political in nature.  (The original freedom party was ZAPU.  ZANU's split in 1963 is usually explained as the result of frustration over ZAPU's initial reluctance to resist militarily.  But by and large ZAPU's adherents tended to be Ndebele while ZANU's supporters tended to be Shona.)

After Norma's introduction, we spent about an hour going over the article itself, after which discussion turned to some of the larger questions.  The experience of the Zimbabwean women seemed to fit a broader pattern:  Marginalized groups have historically viewed military service as an avenue into the social and political mainstream, and in the liberal imagination it is assumed that this strategy is effective.  That is one reason so many international observers assumed that the participation of women in ZANLA and ZIPRA gave the gender equality rhetoric enormous plausibility.  In fact, it is perfectly possible for the group that controls political power to employ a subordinate group militarily and make minimal political, social, or cultural accommodations.  Five thousand African Americans fought in the American Revolution but as a group blacks had little to show for it.  (The emancipation programs adopted by Northern states had nothing to do with the claims of African American veterans, and few blacks received the land bounties and pensions awarded to white veterans.)  Several hundred thousand colonial infantry fought in the European armies of the First World War, again with little change in the status of the societies from which they came.

Not only did female personnel in ZANLA and ZIPRA fail to gain equality for themselves and for other Zimbabwean women, they did not gain much postwar recognition, either.  in the pantheon of  Chimurenga heroes there are few nationally-recognized heroines.  Although a 1996 film does dramatize the contributions of women in the struggle, this seems more for the consumption of western liberals than Zimbabweans.  Apparently most female veterans did not even receive pensions:  an important criterion prescribes service within Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, whereas most women served on the Zambian and Mozambique sides of the border.  There they received training, served as bearers and in other support capacities, and came under attack from the Rhodesian army (which managed to raid ZIPRA and ZANLA camps almost at will).  This is a source of considerable bitterness to female veterans.  "How could I have been called a 'terrorist' [during the war]," one woman mourned to Tanya Lyons, "and today I canít be called a hero with my fellow comrades?"

We also discussed the use of oral history, an issue broached by the grad student in Women's Studies who wanted to know how historians tended to regard oral source material.  Interviews and other non-documentary sources are routinely employed by scholars in women's studies and other fields in which written documents may be non-existent.  Judging by some of the early H-War responses to the query "Is military history Eurocentric?"--as well as my own experiences--I get the impression that many military historians are less apt to think in terms of using oral history, though I do not say they would necessarily reject it.  Ordinarily I see it employed as a supplement to written sources; seldom is it the mainstay, as it was in Tanya Lyons' essay.  I think that in order for military history to transcend its "western" focus--to use a less loaded term than "Eurocentric"--we will have to become more adept at using the tools of archaeology and anthropology.  We will also have to become more sophisticated at reading existing documents "against the grain," since a document overtly composed from the perspective of a colonial official may require considerable coaxing before it will shed much light on the perspective of the colonized.

Eventually we got on the subject of military history itself, an issue again spurred by the presence of the Women's Studies grad student.  I talked about the difficulty the field has experienced in achieving academic respectability and the extent to which this was the result of political bias as opposed to valid intellectual reservations.  The grad student remarked that scholars in women's studies also had the sense of perpetually having something to prove, a comment promptly echoed by others in the room concerning their own area of specialization.  (Norma, for example, noted that OSU's Political Science department has exactly one faculty member who specializes in Africa, as opposed to several whose research focuses on a single American state.)  Plainly, things are tough all over, and come to think of it, I have never met an academic who considers their field to occupy the catbird seat.

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