|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.):
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.
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.
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.
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