Interrogating the Project of Military History

April 15 - I have long been a student of procrastination.  I own two or three good books on the subject and have for years conducted advanced experiments with procrastination using myself as a human guinea pig.  (I never signed the release forms; I'll get around to it someday.)  Most people tend to put things off.  Although we joke about it, it's a serious matter.  For some it even proves fatal, the ultimate consequence of  the physical exam we never got around to scheduling, the change in diet or exercise we meant to undertake, and so on.  But long before it kills us, procrastination robs us of much we could have achieved in life.  To top things off, it isn't even fun.

Probably the worst  way to deal with procrastination is to vow that one will never do it again.  This is like the Romans vowing after Cannae that henceforth, they will lose no more battles to Hannibal.  Something is needed besides a vow.  You have to observe yourself, notice the tasks you tend to shirk, and ask (with a sense of curiosity rather than disgust) why you do it.  Bit by bit, you can gain ground against procrastination--the Romans eventually beat Hannibal--but it's an incremental process.  And, as with beating the Carthaginians, it involves the use of strategy.

Some stratagems are fairly obvious, like dividing a big job into smaller components or rewarding yourself for doing a disagreeable task.  Others are more subtle, and one is downright ingenious.  It involves capitalizing on the fact that procrastinators will do almost anything except tackle the thing that most needs doing.  Let's say you really need to do your taxes--but hey, doesn't the house need cleaning, too?  So you clean the house as a way to avoid doing taxes.  At least you have a clean house.

By giving this tendency a slight twist, you can take deliberate advantage of it--create a list of things to be done and let your repulsion from the least agreeable task serve as the engine that drives you to perform the remaining chores.  This technique is known as Structured Procrastination.

It has begun to dawn on me of late that the engine driving me to perform prodigies of labor in other areas of my life is a trim, attractively bound, intelligent and literate little book called  Willing Obedience:  Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776-1898 (Stanford University Press, 2004).  Its author is Prof. Elizabeth D. Samet, who teaches in the Department of English at the United States Military Academy.  Prof. Samet is also a poet.  You can find one of her poems here; you can even hear her recite it. 

This sounds like the beginning of an excoriating review, and some weeks ago H-War did indeed assign me to review the book.  But my problem isn't the book (of which I've as yet read only fifty pages).  Rather, it is the fact that Prof. Samet and I are on very different wavelengths.  She has tackled an important historical issue but she has done so using the approach of a literary critic, whereas if I were doing the same job I would employ a more empiricist approach--what tends to get tagged, in interdisciplinary grant proposals, as the "traditional historical method."

Samet has set herself the following puzzle:  How do you get a person to fight for liberty when fighting for liberty actually involves the sacrifice of one's liberty?  It's a seeming contradiction with which I long ago had a brief but vivid acquaintance. Pretty much the first thing I learned during Basic Combat Training was that I had voluntarily imprisoned myself.  I couldn't go where I wanted, eat what I wanted, or sleep when I wanted.  For a couple of weeks I couldn't even plunk some coins in the vending machine that mocked us in the center of my battery area (I was in the field artillery, so we had batteries, not companies) and buy myself a Coke.  It was something I never forgot--and this was an experience far removed from extended service overseas or running the risk of wound and death.  How did American soldiers come to terms with the paradox of voluntarily circumscribing their liberty in order to preserve it, which Prof. Samet sees as really being a central paradox of republican citizenship?

I'm not exactly certain how I'd tackle this as a research problem, but I'm pretty sure that I'd examine as much evidence and listen to as many voices as I could.  That is more or less the way I researched the shifting attitudes of Union policymakers, generals and soldiers toward appropriate conduct toward Southern civilians when writing The Hard Hand of War.  Among historians it is pretty standard fare.  While not as precise as a modern opinion poll, casting a wide net offers the best chance of coming up with a representative sample of views.

That's not Prof. Samet's method.  Hers is to focus on a few key texts, which deal with a few key figures, and explicate the hell out of them.  I've encountered this method before--it gets used a lot in studies of American racism, for instance--but I've got to say that at a gut level I seldom believe I'm learning much about the ostensible subject.  I feel instead that I'm learning about the author's views on the subject, which is not the same thing.

But wait:  one could argue, plausibly, that readers of The Hard Hand of War  merely learn what yours truly happened to think about Union military attitudes toward Southern civilians.  Whether you serve up snippets from a thousand sources or extended passages from a few sources, you still choose the snippets, and they're selected, weighted and arranged according to the design you create in your head.  To claim otherwise is a power play:  a false claim to objectivity, "the god trick."  It's not intellectually defensible.

Besides, Willing Obedience comes with the following disclaimer:  "This book is not a systematic study of the psychological, sociopolitical, legal, or ethical dimensions of obedience." (8)  So there, all you social scientists, historians, jurists and philosophers:   Prof. Samet is not going to approach the issue as you would.  Rather, she's going to "examine competing models of obedience engendered in literary, political, and military contests of force shaping American national consciousness from the Revolution through the nineteenth century." (8)

Competing models . . . engendered . . . contests of force . . . national consciousness.

After reading that sentence, per the logic of structured procrastination, I have an itch to dust the furniture.  The next sentences whisper subliminally that it's high time to change the oil in my car:

"[The book] is an analysis of rival representations of citizens, soldiers, and popular generals in the American imagination during this formative period. . . . My interest lies in obedience as a cultural motif--in the ways in which citizens and soldiers figure it, and in the plots they employ to dramatize the struggle between autonomy and allegiance." (8-9)

Now, as a good recovering procrastinator who currently longs for distraction as an alcoholic longs for booze, I must ask myself:  why am I inclined at this point to shut down?  Why not just read the book, write the review, put another check mark on my "to do" list, and drive on?

Reduced to essentials, the answer is that I feel incompetent to evaluate Prof. Samet's book.  This is clearly a work of literary criticism that must be understood as such--and I have absolutely no training at all in literary criticism, not even at the undergraduate level.  The H-Net guidelines ask me to review the book with the appropriate H-List membership in mind (in this case the subscribers to H-War), so I must certainly address the book's value to historians.  But that's not a license to bypass engagement with the book on its own terms.

Prof. Samet doesn't provide me with a lot of help.  The book's introduction assumes that I'm already familiar with her method; the endnotes yield no hint of the literary theory that informs her approach.   Clearly it's time for a quick tutorial, so off I go to consult with my colleague and intellectual Wal-Mart, Alan Beyerchen.  If he can't size up Samet's book and point me toward the appropriate school of literary theory, then I'll . . . go home and mow the grass.

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