Interrogating the Project of Military History

April 23 - Got an email early yesterday morning from Jeffrey Grey:

Yo Mark,

Liked the latest piece on Wick VERY much. . . . Will be interested to hear how many of grad students turn up to hear the 'Boss' (I like that). 3-4 for Azar Gat - that is a scandal. What ARE they doing?

It just underscores that in our profession,  the value of extracurricular talks is well understood.

As to Jeffrey's request to hear how many grad students came for Wick's presentations:  the turnout was good.  If I recall correctly, seven attended the informal chat from 12:30 to 2 p.m.; nine the main presentation from 3:30-5:15.  (The program currently has fifteen students.)

The 12:30 event might have been even better attended had I done a better job of publicizing it.  Frankly I think I dropped the ball:  a case of the absent-minded professor.  But I enlisted a grad student to corral his colleagues and it all worked out well.  Wick had a great visit, and I think his talks underscored the value of putting in the face time these events require.

At the same time, Wick's presentations surprised me.  At the 12:30 event, I asked Wick a number of questions intended to elicit the contrasts between our respective views of military history.  His answers were much closer to mine in spirit than I expected; it almost got to feel like one of those packaged Q&A exchanges you see so often in politics. I certainly didn't want to pick a fight with him just to illustrate the contrasts in our perspectives, but for a while there "Williamson Murray," as opposed to "Boss," sure seemed a little higher on the "squishy" meter than I recalled.

The principal difference was in the core audience we would like to reach.  For me, fellow historians are an important audience.  For him, policymakers are the core audience, and he thinks the best opportunities for military historians (in number of jobs and friendliness of environment) lie in think tanks and military institutions.

Wick's afternoon talk concerned the on-going war with Iraq, concluding that it was tactically brilliant but marred by two huge errors, one of which was a failure to really understand the culture of the region.  He added that for the foreseeable future, any wars we might fight would be with strongly contrasting cultures--"culture wars" was the term he used, and it might be a good one had it not already been appropriated to describe the domestic squabbles over societal values.  Though I suppose you could argue that the transnational/international "culture wars" to which Wick referred were just more massive versions of their domestic counterparts.

Anyway, it was a point to which several questioners returned in the Q & A.  Finally it occurred to me to ask:  If he were developing a course to prepare soldiers and analysts to understand such conflicts, what books would make his short list?

Wick was thoughtful for a moment.  "Alistair Horne, A Savage of War of Peace," he said.

Allan Millett chuckled from his chair in the audience.  "I thought you'd say Thucydides," he said, knowing how fond Wick is of seeing The Peloponnesian War as a sort of ur-text for all things war.

"Yeah, Thucydides would be next," Wick agreed.  I started writing down the titles.

"Fall," he said.  That would be Bernard Fall, most likely Street Without Joy.

Then, with that ability to surprise me he often has, I heard Allan say, "Fanon."  Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth is a founding document in postcolonial studies.  Only then, when Allan had made it obvious, did it dawn on me that we were in the realm of postcolonial military history--if not the real article, then a sort of pirating of postcolonialism for our own purposes.

On my own, I wrote, "Edward Said, Orientalism."

Wick thought Hal Moore's We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young, had things to say--on this particular theme, much more than one might suppose from merely watching the film.

People in the audience began suggesting titles or issues that suggested titles. I added:

Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down
Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (and similar books)
Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism:  A Very Short Introduction.
Midaq Alley [a classic novel of life in a modern Egyptian city]
Unsettling Settler Societies [one of the required readings in Claire Robertson's class.  For that matter:]
Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place.
Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem.

The Q & A flowed onward.  Someone asked why we didn't reduce our involvement in the volatile Middle East rather than increase it so dramatically.  Wick replied that if nothing else, that's where most of the world's oil was located.  "Then why can't we just buy it like the Europeans do?" someone persisted.  Another thought we should reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but Wick thought that just wasn't going to happen.  A faculty member from another department was seated next to me.  Judging by her questions, she had grave doubts about America's involvement in Iraq, and she had murmured approval of the idea that we reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

I leaned over and asked if she knew of any good books that accounted for the failure of the United States to give serious attention to what, on the face of it, seemed the better trade-off:  less reliance on Middle Eastern oil in exchange for lower defense budgets and, most importantly, smaller loss in American lives.  "Chomsky?"

She didn't think Noam Chomsky was that convincing, but she couldn't think of anything that really fit the bill.  Yet it was a real puzzle.  Even her most liberal friends, she said, often drove SUVs.  I wrote down, "David Potter, People of Plenty:  Economic Abundance and the American Character," though I've never read it--I wanted to when preparing for generals years ago, but my examiner in early US history scratched it from the list and I never got around to reading it on my own.  Published in the 1950s, it might be a little long in the tooth, but it might be a classic.  Potter, in any case, was a brilliant historian.

Certainly we would also need some acquaintance with the major works that have framed the policy debate, e.g.:

Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order.
Joseph S. Nye, The Paradox of American Power.

And on the theory that the culture of the Bush II administration also needs to be studied:

Gary Dorrien, The Neoconservative Mind:  Politics, Culture, and the War of Ideology.

I think if one could be selective and utilize excerpts from some of these works instead of requiring people to read the whole thing, one might have the makings of a good Mershon Center readings group.

At 5:15, with the Q & A still in full cry, Allan called a halt to the proceedings.  Wick lingered with members of the audience for a while, then the three of us went for drinks at the faculty club.  All three of us were feeling pretty good, and pleased to have each other as colleagues.  I particularly savored the fact that these old mentors of mine, supposedly so much less cutting edge than I, had actually made the case for postcolonial military history.

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