Interrogating the Project of Military History

March 9, 2004 - Today's discussion of the Nhongo-Simbanegavi chapters went well, despite the fact that it's the last week of the quarter and we're all getting a little burned out.  We benefited a lot from having Norma Kriger with us (see Entry 16).  I won't rehearse the details.  The chapters reinforce much of what I've already discussed in earlier entries dealing with the Tanya Lyons essay and Ingrid Sinclair's Flame.  (Incidentally, Norma's take on the film was almost exactly the same as mine.)

At one point, while the rest of the group was doing something else, Norma turned to me and asked what I thought military historians would make of the body of literature on the Chimurenga.  I said I guessed that they would endorse the idea of somebody else building on it but wouldn't take much interest in it themselves.  I forgot that I had already gotten a much better response to this question from historian (and blog aficienado!) Jeffrey Grey of the Australian Defence Force Academy.  I include it here as a sort of guest commentary:

[February 23:]  Your comment on the Chimurenga prompted some further thoughts that I'll share (briefly) with you. There certainly are military historians working in southern Africa, and their work is often worth reading. The problems though (the case is specific, but I could apply it to other contexts) are as follows:

We (meaning you) don't often encounter these people because their currency sucks (even worse than the Pacific peso aka the Australian dollar) and they often can't afford to travel to northern hemisphere conferences. If you don't know them, or know about them, you are less likely to look out for their stuff. Actually, at SMH [Society for Military History] gatherings over the last 3-4 years a couple of my South African mates have attended, prompted by myself and others as part of a process of reaching out to the wider academic community in the field. It's a small start, but at least it's a start.

During the era of the bans on apartheid South Africa, a whole generation of contacts withered and (sometimes literally) died. This was certainly true of inter-Commonwealth relationships, and would be even more true of those with the US since there weren't as many to begin with. English South Africa was in any case focused on the UK and the Commonwealth, and Afrikaner South Africa has long had a continental western Europe focus. Neither, at least in the field of history, had strong links with north America.

The BIG issue, though, is access to publications, and this is not just a South African issue. Simple fact is, stuff gets published but you never hear about it, and can't get copies even when you do unless you have benevolent contacts locally who will purchase stuff for you. It's hard to get Canadian books in the US, which is ridiculous. It's hard to get Australian books in either the US or UK. It's hard to get Canadian books in Australia. It's virtually impossible to get South African books outside southern Africa. Books published in the US and UK are much more nearly a universal currency in distribution terms. This reflects the international copyright legislative regimes and other agreements concerning distribution rights for publishers. This a long and complex issue, but it has actively worked against the free flow and interchange of books, in particular, across the English-speaking world for a long time. Being part of a great big successful (internal) market, you guys probably haven't even noticed.

My office is being moved at the minute (i.e., I have just become the most highly paid storeman/packer in the country for about a week), but when I get settled I'll send you some citations for books on the Chimurenga that you might like to try to chase down (though, given the foregoing, good luck).


[February 25:]


I worked my way to at least some of the relevant boxes today, and found some of my African history stuff. Having looked at the pages you are developing on Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and the Chimurenga, I think the book that might prove useful/interesting is:

Paul L. Moorcraft and Peter McLaughlin, Chimurenga: The War in Rhodesia 1965-1980, Sygma/Collins, Marshalltown [RSA], 1982.

[Note:  This book turns out to be neither at Ohio State (which actually has pretty good holdings on the Chimurenga) nor any library in Ohio.  In fact, according to WorldCat, only twenty-one libraries in the world own a copy.  Five are in the United States, one is in Canada, three are in Europe, and the rest are in--you guessed it--Zimbabwe.  Which bears out Jeffrey's earlier point.]

Several things to note. It is 'black letter' military history - strategy, tactics, orbats [orders of battle], doctrine, adaptive technology etc etc. But, I haven't seen it bettered in those departments. Second, the authors were young (34 and 28) and both had southern African experience. Rereading bits of it this afternoon, they seem both fair minded and knowledgeable when it comes to the contending parties, and McLaughlin served as a police reservist and clearly has some first-hand understanding of Shona and N'debele. They are writing close to events, so clearly talked to many participants while memories were fresh, though they note some of the problems of evidence in their forward. They also write with an eye to the ongoing liberation struggles in Namibia and South Africa at that time.

It won't do things for you on the pomo/poco front - it was written before much of that had really permeated into historical writing, and the authors aren't writing a strict academic text, though both have pretty solid academic credentials. But the recent military history of southern Africa is largely a closed book in the (rest of the) West, and this short book is a good introduction to one chapter of it. There is some very interesting work being done in South Africa on the war there in the 1980s too, both on the borders and in the townships, but Africanists in the West aren't interested (for all the obvious reasons) and neither are military historians (for all the obvious but quite different reasons). Which is a shame, because if nothing else some of it might prompt the current administration to rethink some assumptions about quelling insurgent populations in urban environments. The South African mind has reopened after decades of closure, but not too many people outside the country seem to have noticed, or give a rat's arse. Which is also a shame.

Thanks, Jeffrey!

By the way [I asked in the original version of this entry], would you elaborate on the "obvious but quite different reasons" military historians have overlooked the Zimbabwean and South African struggles?

To which Jeffrey replied:

What are the usual but quite different reasons why military historians, especially in the US, have largely ignored the Chimurenga and the liberation struggle in South Africa? Several things come to mind. The difficulty in procuring the work of many southern African historians has been discussed already. Archival access is an issue, at least in Zimbabwe, as is personal safety. The archives in South Africa, in my experience, are very accommodating and rich in their holdings, but they suffer from lack of resources and facilities, and to work in the military archive in Pretoria you need permission from the SANDF [South African National Defence Forces, I would guess]- not difficult to get in practice, at least to date.

Another reason I suspect is that there hasn't been much interest in LIC [low intensity conflict], counter-insurgency and revolutionary war in universities or in the US military since Vietnam, although that may change shortly with the situation in Iraq. The struggle in South Africa was a symbolic and rhetorical exercise for many in the West, who never really engaged with it beyond that level. (That's not true of everybody). The outcome in Zimbabwe is deeply disappointing, though broadly predictable, and I would second everything that Professor Kriger was quoted by you as saying with regard to coercion of the civilian population during the transition to power - everything I have heard from Australians and Brits involved in the ceasefire monitoring force there at the time confirms it. Much easier just to move on.

And let's face it, outside Africa, who really pays deep, concerted sustained attention to Africa itself? I don't think that's true only of military historians. I think that many of those who profess an interest in Africa are enthralled by the idea of Africa, not by the often grubby reality, at least in academic circles.

If you want a taste of a very good South African historian with a sympathy to cultural approaches, have a look at Bill Nasson. You would probably enjoy his Abraham Esau's War, about the involvement of black Africans on both sides of the Boer War, focused on the Cape Colony, which also has the great advantage of having been published originally by Cambridge UP, and therefore procurable (in theory). [The OSU Library in fact has a copy.] Professor Kriger may know him, though I'm not sure that he comes to the US very often. If you want to follow through on southern African material, I'll find you the contact details for a second hand book dealer I sometimes use in Cape Town. Very nice guy, very knowledgeable on the military history of the region, and very happy to deal with overseas customers.

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