Interrogating the Project of Military History

April 1 - I'll get back to the Lee assessment shortly, but because I have only one life, and multiple interests, blog entries will shift topic from time to time.  This could get confusing for those who drop in only occasionally, so I've reorganized the main page to list entries by topic.  The current entry will always be in the box near the top of the page.

I've also developed a new logo for the blog.  I hope it conveys the blog's spirit.  The old logo is now at the top of Entry 1.

I hope, too, that being able to flow from topic to topic will enable me to generate entries more regularly.  One of the early frustrations in keeping this blog was the way in which other commitments, often related to military history, kept me away from it until I had time to refocus on postmodernism and postcolonialism. . . .

Spring quarter is underway here at Ohio State.  I'm still not teaching--having met my course commitments for this year, I won't be back in the classroom until autumn.  Let me amend that:  I won't be back in the classroom as a professor.  As was the case last quarter, I'm taking a course in Spanish--Spanish 102--and I'm sitting in on a colleague's course.  In the winter it was Claire Robertson's readings course in Colonialism, Women, and Sexuality.  Now it's Nathan Rosenstein's course on War in the Ancient Mediterranean World.  Peruse his syllabus and tremble!

My interest in Nathan's course derives mainly from an on-going attempt to educate myself to teach a course I came up with some years ago: The History of War, which eventually entered the books as History 380.  The impetus for it came after finding that in any military history class it routinely took a couple of weeks for undergraduates to grasp that the subject matter is not just "guns and battles." A couple of weeks, on the ten-week quarter system, is a long time.  I thought it would be useful to have a gateway course emphasizing the thematic issues in the study of war.  Since war is a universal phenomenon, it seemed wise to frame the course description so as to encompass the global history of war, notwithstanding the fact that I myself knew almost nothing outside the European and U.S. experience, and very little of the western experience before 1500.

In the winter of 2003 I taught the course for the first time to a packed house of 240 undergraduates, most of them non-history majors, which made it especially fun for me as well as fairly lucrative for the history department, given enrollment-based budgeting.  (Click here for the syllabus.) The first weeks were enormously educational as I wrote and delivered lectures on subjects about which I had hitherto not considered systematically--and in some cases knew nothing about until the lecture preparation process.  I did as much as I dared with non-western military history, but if I lacked the knowledge base, I lacked something more important:  a coherent global framework in which to place the discussion.  Military history has a very strong metanarrative grounded in the European tradition.  Beyond a few pioneering efforts, we have scarcely anything that conceptualizes military history as a subset of world history.

That experience prompted me to organize a conference on the History of War in Global Perspective.  Last year I applied to the Mershon Center for funding to support such a conference; it gave me a generous grant.   The conference, slated for November 11-13, essentially involves bribing a bunch of senior scholars to help me learn to teach History 380, with the promise that we will pass along our insights to the wider military history community.

What follows is excerpted from the grant proposal (I've left out budgetary items, etc.):

In recent years I have designed and begun to teach a course on "The History of War." It is the first course at Ohio State—and one of the first in the country—to treat military history in global perspective and not primarily within the western tradition alone. When the course was first offered, enrollment totaled 240, which was all the class auditorium could accommodate. (We had to turn away at least a dozen other students.) This approach has proven intellectually exciting to undergraduates. It is also enormously valuable in terms of equipping them, as citizens of the twenty-first century, to understand all four of the main themes the Mershon Center has identified as being of current interest to its mission.

Of central importance is the theme of culture and identity and their impact on national security. Specialists are aware that western and nonwestern cultures and identity often produce very different understandings of the use of force and diplomacy in international relations, and that their political and economic decision-making is often shaped according to different premises and normative belief systems. Nevertheless, military history continues to privilege the so-called "western way of war." The usual apology for this approach is that European societies have proven exceptionally capable at war-making and therefore non-western cultures have been forced to adopt western approaches to war in order to gain success. This is at least partly an argument of convenience. Most of us military historians, having been trained in the western tradition, do not possess the knowledge base required to produce a truly global history of war. For that reason we tend either to ignore the nonwestern experience or accord it token treatment.

The proposed project will mobilize the talents of a number of interested western and nonwestern specialists to develop the intellectual underpinnings for a well-integrated global history of war. It will do so through a series of focused conferences that will forge a coherent vision of a global history of war in terms of appropriate comparisons, contrasts, and conceptual frameworks.

It does little good to study culture and identity and their impact on national security if the fruits of these studies cannot be grasped by the educated public and national security establishment. Yet in a society in which national security concerns are still understood within an overwhelmingly Eurocentric framework, that is an all too likely outcome.

Most students at American universities are citizens of the world's only remaining superpower—a superpower whose presence and policies have tremendous global impact, and whose diplomatic efforts are ultimately backed by a military establishment larger than the next several nation-states combined. They inhabit a world in which violence is the principal means by which major political and cultural conflicts are decided. Yet the military history we teach them is still profoundly imprisoned within a Eurocentricism which is quite simply inadequate to the task of understanding war in a global context.

This is no longer acceptable. But the present generation of military historians, almost without exception, were trained to work, and continue to work, within a Euro-American framework. I myself am a product of such a tradition, and I am convinced that this is a deficiency which we cannot rectify simply by the expansion of our reading, because even when we do so we in effect "shoehorn" the nonwestern experience into a western intellectual template. Moreover, military historians overwhelmingly accept the conceptual frameworks developed by the American and European strategic policy-making establishment. This creates a somewhat blinkered understanding of warfare.

To give one example: at the beginning of the History of War course, I showed my students film clips of an air raid over London, the Nazi liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, the capture and collection of African slaves, the terrorist bombing of a mass transit bus, and Gandhi’s famous salt satyagraha. In each instance, one side was armed, the other unarmed, yet my students initially accepted only the air raid as a representation of war. My own view is that these were all representations of war. The Nazis regarded their regime as being at war with the Jews.  The collection of slaves was done violently and often through the exploitation of African wars, while the British successfully fought Spain for possession of the Asiento, the legal right to sell slaves to Spanish colonies. Terrorism, whatever one’s opinion of its morality, is a superb example of asymmetrical warfare, while the satyagraha campaigns were strikingly analogous to military campaigns with the sole exception that weapons of violence were intentionally rejected (not only as unethical but also as tactically counterproductive).

Having read a number of works that attempt to place military history in global context, I have been impressed by the intelligence of the authors and at the same time convinced that a truly global history of war as yet eludes us. I believe that a focused series of conferences among interested historians offers a promising way to begin to create a satisfactory global history of war. I anticipate that it will spark a dialogue that will eventually take on a life of its own.

In addition to launching a much-needed dialogue, other expected results include

 a) the development of pedagogical resources (lecture notes, images, and primary readings) that would support military history courses here at Ohio State, and that instructors in universities throughout the country could use to create world military history courses of their own;

b) an edited volume of essays that address global military history; and

c) a valuable comparative perspective that will enrich the work of conference participants, e.g., my own research on race and war in nineteenth century America.

Statement of Purpose, Method, Anticipated Product, and Significance

The purpose of this project is to assist the field of military history in transcending its Eurocentric origins and becoming truly global in its intellectual understanding of its subject matter. This involves an expansion not only of geographical coverage but also a major recasting of the conceptual frameworks employed to understand war—not least of which would be a clear understanding of the fact that all terms connected with war, including "war" itself, are inherently politicized and understood in distinctive ways by distinctive cultures.


Representative examples of general works in military history include Theodore Ropp’s War in the Modern World, a classic that has been revised and remains in print and which is entirely devoted to the western experience. The same is true of Robert Doughty and Ira D.Gruber (eds.) Warfare in the Western World. John Keegan’s series for Cassell, which has so far produced almost twenty concise, intelligent, beautifully illustrated volumes on "The History of Warfare," includes very little on the non-western experience, with the partial exception of a volume on Mongols, Huns, and Vikings and a planned but as yet unpublished volume on The Chinese Empire and Warfare. In The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare, general editor Geoffrey Parker defends the admittedly Eurocentric emphasis of the book: “First, it would be impossible to provide adequate coverage in a single volume to the military history of all major cultures (some of them, like the Chinese way of war, stretching back even further than that of Europe). Second, merely to pay lip-service to the military and naval traditions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, while devoting the lion’s share of attention to the West, would be an unpardonable distortion. Finally, . . . for good or ill over the past two centuries the western way of war has become dominant throughout the world.”

Although my respect for Professor Parker is very great, I find this explanation unconvincing. First, numerous general world history textbooks have shown that it is perfectly possible to deal in a balanced way with all major cultures. Second, even cultures that have adopted western uniforms, equipment, and weaponry often understand and employ them in very "non-western" ways. (If there is anything distinctively western about war as conducted in sub-Saharan Africa—beyond the use of the ubiquitous AK-47—I fail to see it.) Third, globalization has produced a phenomenon in which individuals like Osama bin Laden can successfully wage war against a superpower using little but electronic banking, a handful of operatives, and a willingness to fly jet airliners into high-rise buildings. This is a kind of "western war jiu jitsu" whereby the strengths of western countries are systematically turned against them.

A growing number of works have attempted to place warfare in a global context. John Keegan's A History of Warfare does so, but in a notoriously idiosyncratic way. Moreover, he is far more sure-footed when describing the western experience than the non-western experience. Michael S. Neiberg's Warfare in World History is a mere 114 pages in length and again, gives far more coverage to western than nonwestern events. Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, systematically analyzes telling encounters between western and non-western armed forces, but always with the idea of demonstrating the unique military efficacy of western culture.

More satisfactory works include Kurt Raaflaub and Nathan Rosenstein (eds.), War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, and Mesoamerica. This is, however, a volume of essays written primarily for specialists. Christon I. Archer, John R. Ferris, Holger H. Herwig, and Timothy H. E. Travers have recently published World History of Warfare, which in my view comes closest to the mark but still overemphasizes western developments. And the non-western coverage (aside from the ancient period) exhibits something of the "lip-service" character that so concerned Professor Parker.


Even so, enough interest in the global history of war has emerged that what is mainly required is a concerted attempt to bring together and focus that interest in a way that will substantially advance the field.

I have been impressed by the success of the methodological approach employed by Professors Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray when they produced the three Military Effectiveness volumes, the Net Assessment volume (Calculations), and The Making of Strategy, all three of which are superb works of scholarship. The secret lay in the creation of a well-considered intellectual template that guided the subsequent authors’ conferences and the eventual essays. I employed some of this approach in producing Civilians in the Path of War.

My method, then, would be to recruit an executive committee to create the basic template—among them [names omitted].

The principal need is not so much for factual information as for a set of questions that one might ask equally of any human culture: the sources of social power, the relationship of military institutions to society, the cultural understanding of war, the domestic uses of armed forces, and so on. Military success would not be the principal yardstick by which to assign degree of coverage (the not-so-hidden agenda of this approach has been an offshoot of the western military quest for decisive victory).

The executive committee, consisting of four historians, would convene in the winter of 2004. It would hold two types of meetings: first, a set of exchanges within the group itself; and second, an open meeting in which the template would be shared with interested Mershon associates, faculty, and graduate students for their comments and suggestions. A reception after this open meeting would encourage the forging of contacts between the committee members and members of the Mershon and university community.

Once a template has been created, six additional scholars would be recruited to provide their insights within the framework of that common template. The template would be distributed ahead of time and scholars strongly encouraged to work within its guidelines. Doubtless the guiding template would receive some tweaking, but I would expect it to be robust enough to retain its ability to lend focus to the ensuing conference exchanges.

Next, a three-day weekend conference would be convened in the autumn of 2004. The invited scholars would share ideas in an informal fashion—no academic papers, although one might encourage the use of visual presentations. The conference would include a Thursday evening reception open to Mershon associates; two Friday sessions limited to participants alone, in order to include the freest possible exchange of ideas; a Friday evening keynote address open to the general public; and two Saturday sessions open to the Mershon and university communities. In the concluding session of the 2004 conference, the participants would concentrate on articulating the strongest bases for comparative exploration of global military cultures that, in their views, had emerged from the conference.


First, an improved course that will serve as a model for adoption at other universities, including the service academies.

Second, the audiovisual resources (web site, maps, images, film clips) to support such a course.

Third, publications, culminating in a college textbook composed of text, maps, images, and selected primary documents to support such a course, with suggestions for film clips and how to make effective pedagogical use of them. In addition to historical narrative and analysis, the textbook would include sections on the origins of war, cultural comparisons about the perceived nature of war, nontraditional views of war (e.g., the African slave trade, nonviolent resistance), the role of the military in developing countries, and explorations into the ethics of war and strategies advanced to restrain or eliminate war.


The project’s ultimate goal is nothing less than to break military history free of its Eurocentric constraints and bring it into the twenty-first century. In a world populated primarily by non-European peoples, the neglect by this field of non-European identities, cultural understanding of national security concerns, and experience of war is no longer defensible.

I've since revised some of my plans for the conference--for instance, I decided the executive committee was unnecessary--but this remains the basic template.

As usual, this effort to reframe the field meets with a variety of reactions.  Most people have been encouraging.  Some have been skeptical but willing to engage with the idea.  A few reactions have been, well, reactionary.  There seems to be an unexamined assumption in some quarters that western history is free of political value judgments but world history--any world history--is not.  That no longer surprises me.  What does surprise me is how much such responses still bug me.

Of course, bewilderment and frustration with that sort of thing is not confined to me.  In future entries I'll be talking about the achievements and challenges of the emerging academic field of world history.  For a good recent review, check out "Concepts and Institutions for World History: The Next Ten Years"--Prof. Patrick Manning's plenary address at a recent conference convened to review the progress of the field and shape its future direction.

Continue to next entry.

Return to main page.